“I Am a Servant of the Secret Heartbreaker!”

George Strayton’s The Secret Fire is about as blatant a fantasy heartbreaker as you could hope to find in this day and age. The days of the classic fantasy heartbreaker, a game designed by someone who apparently has little to no exposure to game design ideas beyond Dungeons & Dragons and whatever weird idea they want to graft onto the Dungeons & Dragons chassis but for some reason believes they have created something absolutely revolutionary, have waned since the release of the Open Gaming Licence and the rise of the retroclones – now if you want to release your very own D&D-alike game or house rules for such, it’s easier to either put out your very own retroclone or release your ideas as a supplement for the retroclone closest to your heart.

The Secret Fire does not take this route; indeed, it shows little evidence that it’s even aware of retroclones, or the OGL (which it doesn’t use). At most, George Strayton seems to have a vague passing knowledge of some OSR talking points, which he throws out in an apparent attempt to gain OSR credibility but doesn’t deliver on in his actual design.

Speaking of a desperate bid to gain credibility, Strayton seems to have gained the favour of Gail Gygax for the sake of getting something resembling apostolic succession from Gary going here. How did he accomplish this? Appendix B notes that Gail’s charity – the Gygax Memorial Fund – receives a cut of the sales of The Secret Fire, and urges readers to donate more; I suspect that’ll do it. (Tenkar over at Tenkar’s Tavern has drilled down deep over the years to expose a number of issues with the Gygax Memorial Fund; I’m happy with Strayton wasting his money on it, but suggest people consider themselves whether they are happy with contributing to it directly or via book purchases.)

In short, Strayton is highly invested in making The Secret Fire look like some sort of true successor to the Gygaxian approach, which is odd considering that none of the games that Gary designed after he left TSR particularly riffed on the D&D mechanics whilst this one is utterly beholden to them, right down to the choice of classes and levels; this is basically a take on D&D with various assumptions of Strayton’s home campaign ported in and a number of game mechanical concepts awkwardly implemented.

These ideas are often cherry-picked from other contexts without showing much in the way of an understanding of why they work in those contexts. For instance, some energy is spent bending, folding, and mutilating D&D to accommodate a wound track system which doesn’t seem to add a whole lot to proceedings. Perhaps the most extensive new system is the idea of Energy Points, which can be spent to accomplish various special effects; once you read over the method of how they are gained, it’s clear that this is a botched attempt to incorporate Aspects in the style of FATE (or, as it is known by sophisticates, FUDGE Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment, or as it is known by true intellectuals and aristocrats Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment) – you have various Traits and Descriptors associated with your character, when you act in accordance with them you can gain points, either because the referee offered you points to act in a particular way or because you yourself proposed that you should get points for taking a particular course of action.

Now, the way that this works in Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment is that your characters has Aspects, and these Aspects are intrinsically tied both to the accumulation and spending of Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment points. When an Aspect causes trouble or complications for your character (which can take the form of a -2 penalty to something they’re trying to do, or just straight-up create difficulties), you can get points for it; when an Aspect could conceivably be beneficial to your character, you can spend the points to get a +2 bonus on an applicable roll.

In The Secret Fire, you get a specific, limited set of Descriptors and Traits (the equivalents of Aspects here). Traits are personality traits associated with the Good-to-Evil morality axis on the alignment system; whilst you still pick one of Good, Neutral and Evil to be aligned with (and can be dragged down the track one way or another by behaviour outside the scope of your chosen alignment), you also get a Good, Neutral, and Evil personality trait from the table, and can obtain Energy Points by behaving in accordance with any one of them – so to give The Secret Fire some credit, it’s at least a D&D variant where there’s occasionally good game mechanical reasons to breach your alignment.

(There’s also a Lawful-to-Chaotic axis to this alignment system, but in practice it is incoherent nonsense. There’s no traits associated – it just is a measure of your character’s tendency to behave in a way uncharacteristic to their chosen alignment. How this is supposed to get you points is not explained, since behaving in accordance with any alignment trait is meant to get you points. Are you supposed to get more points if you are Chaotic Good and do something in accordance with your Evil or Neutral Traits or something? This is not explained. And of course, in practice because of the way the Good-Neutral-Evil track works, Chaotic characters will end to end up Chaotic Neutral, since if they start out as Good they will tend to do Evil or Neutral stuff and if they start out Evil they will do Good or Neutral stuff, and then once they get dragged into Neutral they’ll likely do a balance of Good and Evil stuff and stay there all along. It just doesn’t seem especially well thought-through.)

As for Descriptors, these are not chosen – you have one for each of your attributes (like Strength and so on), based on your score in it, unless you have a reasonably average score in which case you don’t have one. In practical terms, this means that the available Strength Descriptors (for example) are increasingly more emphatic synonyms for “greater/less than average Strength” – which of course means that for the purpose of the Energy Points system there may as well only be two Descriptors per attribute, one for “better than average” and one for “worse than average”, because any situation where you can get EPs out of “Weak” will also apply to being “Wimpy”.

Now, instead of gaining Energy Points just when your Traits or Descriptors get you into trouble, you can get them from any instance when you play up to them, even if that’s ultimately beneficial to your character. As a result, you don’t spend the points to activate Aspects like in Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment; instead you spend them to get various in-game advantages, with an extensive set of examples provided.

The examples given are create a problem because they include things like knocking over an opponent in combat which, in principle, characters ought to be able to at least attempt at any time, Energy Points or no. The question arises as to whether it is possible to get these effects without Energy Points; I am inclined to say “no” because the use of Energy Points allows casters to recast spells they’ve already expended, which doesn’t make sense as something you’d allow them to do without the expenditure of such points.

The overall design of the Energy Points system would encourage players to largely play up to the features written on their character sheets when deciding what their characters are getting up to. This is one of the major ways in which the game absolutely sabotages its stated aims.

It claims, for instance, to proudly prioritise player skill over the numbers on the character sheet. That in itself is a reasonable enough approach for OSR-type games to take; whilst the approach of emphasising the OOC problem-solving skills of players over the IC competencies of their characters has fallen out of fashion in many sections of the hobby, it’s undeniable that it was a mode of play common in the early D&D era and which the OSR has made a certain amount of hay in reviving.

The problem is that a firm assertion that your system does this means nothing ifi it actually does the opposite. For instance, the Energy Point system not only actively encourages players to milk the data on their sheet for all it’s worth to milk those points, but also appears to create a class of special moves you have to spend Energy Points to do, which flies in the face of that OSR approach for the reasons I outlined above. Even if you accept that knockdowns can be tried without spending Energy Points (perhaps through the use of the skill system), you still have the issue that the optimal way to play the game flies in the face with how the game claims you’re supposed to play it.

As for other subsystems added, there’s a skill system which adds another undistinguished entry into the long list of attempts to bolt on a skill system to early D&D without just biting the bullet and going for the approach of one of the Wizards-era editions, and a system around the “Elder Gods” where you’re supposed to put in a bunch of ranks of how much your character is aligned to cosmic forces like Death and the Great Unknown and the Elements and so on and you’re supposed to get… stuff out of this. There are few firm directions involved beyond inviting the referee to make up various circumstances where a high or low score may be beneficial or counterproductive, and giving the players a cool drawing to colour in as they add ranks in various things.

Perhaps additional details are hidden in code or in downloadable supplements; there’s odd little codes and cryptic puzzles spread throughout the book which Strayton promises add additional insights into the game system or unlock special supplemental material, which I can’t be arsed to solve and (so far as I can tell) nobody else has bothered to crack either. I am sure was great fun for Strayton to cook up these riddles, but to be honest I think it’s a kind of pointlessly self-indulgent use of time at best – at worst, it represents Strayton deliberately obscuring information about his game from the referee, which in general I don’t really consider to be best practice.

In general, The Secret Fire is a curious mixture of sloppiness in game design and formatting (for instance, the book makes extensive reference to the character sheet, but does not reproduce it in its pages, whilst I am sure it is provided as a download somewhere, this is nonetheless an inconvenience when reading the book with an eye to learning the system) combined with over-earnest lecturing of the reader.

I guess the intention is to mimic Gygax’s own tendency to go off on meandering tangents in the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, but the overall impression given is that George Strayton wants to be your mystery-shrouded gatekeeper into a world of magic and adventure but just comes across as an over-familiar teacher or youth pastor who’s trying to engage with a generation they don’t really have much connection with. (Note, for instance, the mixture of old school gaming resources, classic sword and sorcery entertainment and earnest self-improving texts like Thoreau’s Walden in the recommended reading list in Appendix D.)

Perhaps the apex of this is Appendix C, which tries to inspire tabletop gamers to live an active, fulfilling, and community-improving lifestyle out of game sessions by providing experience bonuses for performing character-building tasks provided on a list. What’s particularly hilarious about this is that I recognise this exact plot from an old Knights of the Dinner Table comic strip, in which BA’s hectoring, didactic attempt to get his gaming group to engage with life outside of gaming backfires because, by applying gamification principles to it, he just turns it into another game for his group to min-max.

There is no sign here that Strayton has any awareness of the strip; his concept is being presented in full earnestness. What makes for an interesting challenge for a cub scout group feels deeply patronising when grown adult game-players (who often have busy enough lives anyway) are challenged to do it by a dorky game designer. On top of that, Strayton prefaces this with an anecdote about how in his early twenties he and his buddies didn’t get much romantic action, so he formed a Dating Club and gamified the process of asking for dates, a story which, even from a hardcore dork like me, can inspire one possible response:

If you want a truly full autopsy of The Secret Fire, the FATAL and Friends writeup of it pours more than enough cold water on the system, but to summarise: once again, we have someone whose game design ideas amount, at most, to some half-baked concepts which might, with further development, constitute either the kernel of a whole new game system or an interesting supplement for a retro-clone, and they are kidding themselves into thinking they can base a whole game around it. Furthermore, the most developed non-D&D idea here is lifted more or less bodily from a different game, and yet Strayton is willing to kid himself that he’s produced something revolutionary.

He seems to have persuaded others of the same, given the quotes he litters the blurbs for the game with; the most notable of these is Monte Cook, which is just one more reason I believe that Monte Cook is greatly overrated as a game designer, since a designer with a sufficiently critical eye would be able to see the flaws here instantly. Save your money and don’t get burned.

 

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